As originally conceived in 1983, The Lovers, The Great Wall Walk was probably a bit too cute. Performance art runs that risk — that risk of coming across as a gimmick — if it lacks grit, tension and instability.
No question, it was clear from the start that there would be an immense effort required from Marina Abramovic and Ulay (real name: Frank Uwe Layslepen) in bringing the piece to life ¬— a walk along the Great Wall of China.
Ulay would start in the west in the Gobi Desert, and Abramovic would jump off from the far eastern end of the Wall at the Yellow Sea. After more than 1,000 miles each, they would meet in the center and be married in a Chinese ceremony.
It made sense. The two had been lovers since beginning their partnership as performance artists in 1976. Much of their work had involved the use of their bodies, often nude and often coming into violent and repeated collisions with each other and their surroundings. In one piece, Light/Dark, they sat opposite each other and alternately slapped each other’s face until one of them had had enough.
Works of stamina and commitment
They called these pieces Relation Work, and they envisioned the walk along the Great Wall as arising from the same artistic gut-inspiration. After all, like the earlier works, it demanded monumental physical stamina and commitment. On the other hand, it differed from those pieces inasmuch as the two artists would never be in the same place until the very end.
It also differed — in its initial conception — in an ending that had all the earmarks of giving a sentimental bourgeois closure to the work, something completely foreign to the couple’s long-honed esthetic.
Luckily for the piece and for the artists as artists, Abramovic and Ulay had fallen out of love by the time they actually took their walk in 1988. In fact, they had stumbled into a kind of hate or, at least, distaste for each other.
“Hastening toward new lives”
As Thomas McEvilley writes in his essay in The Lovers, the catalogue published in 1989 for a touring exhibit on the performance:
The Lovers no longer loved one another. The Wedding which was to have ended the Walk had become a Divorce. Everything, really, had changed…
What impressed me was that the piece did not collapse, as many had expected it would under these stresses. The piece proved resilient enough to adapt.
Indeed, it seems to me, the work prospered because of, not in spite of, the stresses. Those tensions gave the performance a heightened energy and an ending that was, in fact, a new opening of the lives of Abramovic and Ulay. McEvilley writes in another section of his essay:
But Marina and Ulay were both walking must faster than the Chinese had calculated. Scheduled to walk seven kilometers a day, each of them often walked 20. Behaving identically, each of them had gotten ten days ahead of schedule in the first month. They were no longer interested in the languorous approach of Lovers toward one another’s culminating embrace; they were pressing their individual limits to hasten toward their new lives and also, perhaps, competing with each other as to who would arrive at the meeting place first.
The Wall dominates
On June 27, 1988, after three months of walking, Ulay and Abramovic finally met on the Great Wall in Shaanxi Province. A photo in The Lovers documents that moment, showing the two artists, Ulay in blue and Abramovic in red, only a few steps from each other.
The Wall itself dominates the photo, as it did the entire effort. The walkers are two distinctly separate smaller elements in the image.
(If this had been a Hollywood movie, the image would have been taken from a helicopter, zooming in on the two of them falling into each other’s arms. And I’m sure, if the end of the walk had been a marriage, we would have seen a Hollywood movie about it by now.)
“Bellowing from a loudspeaker”
The Lovers is comprised of three parts. It opens with a section by Ulay, featuring his murky commentary interspersed with more than 30 of his surprisingly over-dark photos, and closes with a section by Abramovic that combines shorter, more poetic musings with pictures taken by her and other members of her team.
Abramovic’s writings are much more accessible. For instance:
Chinese opera bellowing from a loudspeaker
In the village blending with the drone
of the tractors in the fields.
Those words are opposite one of her section’s many striking images of her in her red coat, walking on the wall.
I found the Ulay and Abramovic sections a bit deflating, but that has to be expected. Their art was on the Wall, doing the walk. Not so much on the page.
“An enormous family”
Between those sections is the heart of the book — McEvilley’s 40-page essay on the five years of preparations and negotiations that preceded the effort, as well as his visits to each of the artists during the walk.
In that essay, Ulay, who was born in a bomb shelter in Germany in 1943, comes across as a Western hot-head whose effort is fueled by anger at his thwarted ambitions. McEvilley writes:
Ulay said he was seeking a family in China — an enormous family of a billion, an encompassing social matrix that was eternal and simple. On one occasion, in a western province, our guides had separated us from the Chinese at dinnertime, seating us in a separate room to eat. Ulay was really insulted. “All my life I have wanted a family, now at last I find a family here and then you discriminate against me!”….His attraction toward the Chinese peasants was offset by his rage with petty bureaucrats who he more often had to deal with — and who in fact openly prevented him from contracting peasants, as a cultural pollutant.
By contrast, Abramovic found the setting of Communist China with its rejection of the individual and its brutal construction styles too much like the Yugoslavia where she was born and grew up. McEvilley writes:
Back in the “little inn” Marina doggedly stirred the powered milk into the hot water while she spoke of the “ugliness, the ugliness” of it all, tears running silently down her face…For Marina China was altogether too much like Yugoslavia. She had fought against Yugoslavia all her life, trying to free herself from its dismal bleakness, its fat-hipped body-style, its humorless gaze….Marina both laughed and wept in contemplating this dismal culture which has tried to purify itself of its past in a return to Ground Zero which leaves a cement factory as the only cultural ornament.
The wall itself was another story. Abramovic found herself on an exalting and sometimes dangers road along the backbone of the most monumental human artifact ever fashioned through a similarly monumental landscape of rolling mountains.
As performance art, The Lovers, The Great Wall Walk was witnessed in its entirety by no one.
We can look back now and admire the idea, see the art in it. We can look back and admire the effort, the actual trudging step by step for hundreds and hundreds of miles. We can read in The Lovers McEvilley’s descriptions and get a sense of who these people were and what it was like for them.
But, essentially, this was a work of art that was witnessed and experienced by two people, Ulay and Abramovic.
They were at the heart of the piece. They know the heart of the piece. They were not only its performers. They were its audience.
McEvilley hints at this in his concluding paragraph:
In fact they strode along like heroes, all the worry about their success or their safety defeated in the proud stride of her long legs along the topmost ridges of huge mountains you could cling to with your fingertips — and his tireless impetuous cruise across the desert. Staying off to the side while the other humans [in his party] are standing on their heads and sliding on their behinds down the dune-sides, Ulay moves through the hot desert sunlight, with a long, lanky stride and an eye like an old trapper. Marina looks with solemn irony at the mountain peak. “Lot of eagles there,” she says.
Patrick T. Reardon